Back when Yahoo ruled the Internet and Google was basically an unknown start-up, the Dot Com Boom imploded.
Out of the pixel dust, Google would rise to conquer the world-wide-web. And OhioTraveler.com would become a staple in the world of Ohio tourism. That was 20 years ago. And what a long, strange trip it’s been.
Frank Rocco Satullo, the creator of OhioTraveler.com, sifted through discs of free AOL hours and discovered easy-to-use software to build a website. He gained media attention for a novel idea: a virtual pet cemetery. Another was a message board to share Ohio’s urban legends. He kept tinkering with ideas until he found what resonated most with Ohioans – free things to do.
Satullo compiled so many things to do for free across the state he decided to publish it all in book form.
Nobody wanted to publish it.
It was at that time, that his day job as the director of marketing for a Fortune-100 company in the investment industry moved across the country. With children under the age of four and strong family ties to Ohio, he decided the move was not in his best interest. So, in pursuit of new employment, Satullo moved his young family from the Cleveland-Akron area to the Cincinnati-Dayton area to run a marketing department for another Fortune-100 company. While this was happening, he self-published the book FREE Ohio Fun. Barnes N Noble and Borders bookstores agreed to carry it statewide. In May of 2002, he registered the URL OhioTraveler.com with plans to add attractions and destinations beyond the freebies.
Book sales were strong so Satullo decided to make the biggest sales pitch of his life. It wasn’t to an angel investor – it was to his wife (his personal angel investor so to speak) who just started back to work as a special education teacher. Over the next two years, Satullo pursued the American dream of self-employment. He built his website content to become an all-inclusive resource for Ohio travel and tourism. It shared “free things to do” as well as “places worth the price of admission.”
The start-up venture meant that a trip to the video store (Remember Blockbuster?), was no longer in the family budget. Pizza delivery was another casualty. The family even decided to forgo a summer of cable television.
But these sacrifices were met with optimism and energy. Google fell in love with OhioTraveler.com and put it at the top of many organic search results. And in year three, the full-time fledgling business (run out of the spare bedroom), achieved what is called “paydirt.” And for the next dozen years or so, OhioTraveler.com rode a wave to statewide recognition.
OhioTraveler’s video production began when HD cameras went from $12,000 to “affordable.” Still, Satullo couldn’t afford the new technology. His first video was panned in a “chat room” (before social media) as the worst on the Internet. He adapted, and kept filming believing his creativity would prevail. Several years later, his videos earned half a dozen statewide tourism video awards.
Satullo always looked for fun with his new ideas to set OhioTraveler apart from its competition. One of his fearless ideas seemed more like a foolish one. He tried it anyway. And the “Boneheaded Tourist” was set loose to explore Ohio. This program sent a mini mannequin Satullo’s mother-in-law made to attractions across Ohio. Each host site used the funny-looking mascot to share their experience in photos and video clips. Each visit showcased the destination while using humor to keep the “Boneheaded Tourist” from getting into mischief while he was there.
As all things Internet continued to change, sometimes rapidly, Satullo became an early adapter of the secure (SSL) Internet. It was a year later that he learned the non-secure sites of his advertisers (nearly all of them) no longer showed OhioTraveler as a top referrer of traffic to their websites. It was a techno glitch. Before long, the problem was resolved. So it goes. You never know where the next problem will arise in technology but be sure, it is coming.
Over the years, the tourism space on the Internet has grown to one of the most competitive classes online. Every visitors’ bureau, chamber of commerce, main street organization, newspaper, magazine, radio, television, attraction, store, restaurant, hotel, festival, and event website – just to name some –competes for the same pool of potential visitors. And that was before social media exploded with bloggers galore.
OhioTraveler.com’s 65,000 monthly subscribers/unique visitors for its digital Ohio travel magazine were no longer enough to stand out. Satullo had to integrate Facebook, and other social media platforms like everyone else to remain relevant. And just as Satullo’s OhioTraveler social media channels neared 65,000 followers, the rug beneath the tourism world (and the entire world) was completely yanked out without warning by a thing called COVID.
Satullo, like so many others, had to change course at the drop of a dime. OhioTraveler’s next monthly edition was scrapped and replaced with virtual tours. It was a time when everyone was grounded, and drive-by birthday parties became a thing. OhioTraveler ran a contest along the “six-foot” theme for social distancing. It showed the creativity of its fans and gave pause to laugh when things were anything but funny. Since travel guides were sitting at kiosks statewide largely untouched, Satullo offered every visitors’ bureau to post theirs on OhioTraveler.com for free. And as the infamous year 2020 progressed, outdoor destinations for hiking, paddling, and cabins soared. That was the lone bright spot in an otherwise bleak time for tourism.
In a year of open again—closed again whiplash, much of Ohio tourism folded up shop and said, “To hell with it! See you next year, hopefully.”
Now it’s “next year.” So OhioTraveler.com and other comeback stories, along with newcomers in Ohio travel and tourism are looking at what may be a promising year, OhioTraveler.com’s 20th!